The art we breathe

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Schoolchildren viewing Leasho Johnson’s installation at Devon House

 

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Schoolchildren stand in front of portrait of Col. Peter Beckford as they view Jasmin Girvan’s installation Laying the Table for the Ancestors

Culture–that overused and often abused word– is simply the panoply of distinctive features produced by the ‘livity’ of a people. Culture arises from the environments people live in, the resources at their disposal, the languages they speak, the way they prepare their food, the songs they sing, the clothes they wear, the things they read and watch, what they call art, how they do business, the games they play, the dance moves they make, how they build their physical and metaphorical homes. What they deem obscene and undesirable versus the obscene and undesirable things they tolerate everyday.

Culture cannot be mandated or legislated into existence. Nor can it be easily changed. Cultural change occurs at a glacial pace, primarily instigated by modification in environment, education and resources. The quickest way to transform cultures is by changing the living conditions of people but cultural adaptation is also influenced by exposure to new ways of seeing, doing and thinking.

Sometimes resources exist but are not fully utilized—or are used only by small segments of the population. How many Jamaicans visit the National Gallery of Jamaica for instance? Aside from the mandatory school trip how many people make a practice of visiting the Gallery regularly to view the exhibitions mounted there? Visual art is an aesthetic practice that has developed greatly beyond the basics of drawing, painting and sculpting what is visible to the eye yet too many of us don’t seem to realize this.

What does the mind see? How does it express it? How do we process history, location, time and identity to create new visual objects, sites and experiences? If you’re curious about such things this is the time to visit the National Gallery of Jamaica to see the 2017 Jamaica Biennial which opened on February 24 and will be up till May 28 this year. The National Gallery is an institution created as a repository for the visual musings of the nation, and should be patronized by all Jamaicans. Your taxes underwrite it.

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Laura Facey’s 30-foot long drum, Ceiba

The opening saw a record crowd filling the Gallery, the largest in memory, with families and children out in their numbers; one can only hope this trend continues. Leading up to the opening both the Gleaner and Observer carried bulletins about the Biennial and social media also did its bit to instigate the brimming support the Gallery received last Sunday. Perhaps nothing drummed up as much support for the Biennial as Laura Facey’s Ceiba, a 30-foot long cylindrical drum made from a fallen silk cotton tree (see photo above). Its installation at the Gallery, carried on the shoulders of 35 JDF soldiers, created a startling and colourful instagram moment that was widely featured across both traditional and social media.

The Biennial has spread outside the walls of the National Gallery itself, into Devon House and all the way to Montego Bay, where there is a spectacular display at National Gallery West by Martiniquan artist David Gumbs. The small but well-proportioned domed space of Gallery West has been transformed by five projection screens, one of them in the dome itself. Playing on the screens in psychedelic, patterned symmetry is self-generated, flower-inspired imagery, drenching the space in pure shape-shifting colour. The shape and size of the pulsating imagery depends on the length and strength of breath blown into a conch shell by visitors. The Dome projection is animated in realtime by the considerable street noise of Montego Bay. According to Gumbs, this work reflects on the need to breathe, the symmetric patterns referencing the lungs and the double sided aspect of things in life. Such as light and darkness. Or up and down. Balance.

For me Gumbs’ work symbolizes a shot in the arm of a city that has lost its balance: Montego Bay. Ravaged by the fallout from the vicious Lottery Scam that has embroiled too many citizens of Western Jamaica and Mobay in particular, what that part of the country needs is new life to be breathed into it. It needs a fresh pair of lungs, and Xing-Wang (which means ‘Blossoms’ in Chinese) by David Gumbs is that metaphoric, life-enabling apparatus. Go forth and breathe new life into your city Montegonians…

In Kingston the work of Jasmine Girvan casts a spell at Devon House with the intricately crafted historical horrors she has unleashed in that old building. For her outstanding contribution to the Jamaica Biennial 2017 she has rightfully won the Aaron Matalon Award for the second time. Girvan’s work gives you the unnerving feeling of walking into a spider’s web, leaving you uncomfortably aware of having been touched by something creepy while simultaneously feeling stunned by its sheer beauty. You have until May 28th to feast your eyes on this and other provocative work, and ponder the grotesque scaffolding Caribbean societies are built on.

Originally published in the Gleaner, March 1, 2017. Photos and video added.

Petrine Archer, 1956-2012: Scythed too soon

A note on the passing of Petrine Archer-Straw, British-Jamaican art historian.

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The Caribbean is in mourning at the sudden passing of one its small group of art historians, Dr. Petrine Archer-Straw. Not many of us knew that she suffered from sickle cell disease which literally allowed the grim reaper to scythe her yesterday, on the eve of her 56th birthday. I didn’t know her closely, but we both wrote about art and sometimes found ourselves in the same forum, as in 2002 at the Documenta11 platform on Créolité and Creolization in St Lucia. Our views on art and culture often diverged but i will miss her meticulously kept blog which chronicled most art events worth recording in Jamaica. Her entries were brief, to the point and allowed you to get a quick sense of whatever it was she was documenting.

Interestingly in a recent posting she found herself confronted by the freewheeling  visual prodigy Peter Dean Rickards, who challenged her description of his recent excursion into the English art scene as a ‘claim’ on his part ‘to‘ fame. After a brief back and forth she was forced to alter the preposition ‘to’ to ‘about‘ which more accurately described his engagement with Banksy, and with LA Lewis whose tongue-in-cheek exhibition ‘Almost Famous’ was incorporated into the Nottingham show. Thus her final sentence read:

Rickard’s deliberate destruction of Banksy’s work and his ‘outing’ of the internationally enigmatic artist Banksy has solved a mystery, while also making an ironic statement about Rickard’s own claims about fame. View more works in the show.

One of her most recent projects was a collaboration with Claudia Hucke from the Edna Manley College of art in which they revisited  Jamaica’s first exhibition to tour Europe after gaining independence in 1962, Face of Jamaica, providing rich context and information about it:

 

Petrine was also responsible for creating a mural at the University of the West Indies’ Taylor Hall, a student dormitory. See image below courtesy Trevor McCain:

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For more about Petrine or Pet as she was known to her close friends read this moving eulogy put out by the Art History Department at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts:

The Art History Department and the School of Visual Arts regret the passing of Dr Petrine Archer-Straw. Dr Archer-Straw passed away in the early morning of 5 December 2012 at UWI Hospital as a result of a sickle cell crisis.

Dr Archer-Straw was the first official Head of the Art History Department here at the College serving as a Consultant from 2002 till 2004. She was responsible for creating the Department, recruited three of the five current staff members and created a long term vision plan for a possible Art History/Visual Culture major.

Dr Archer-Straw has a strong publication and curatorial record including her monograph Negrophilia, the book Jamaican Art, which she co-authored with Kim Robinson, and her exhibitions New World Imagery, Back to Black and Photos and Phantasms. Most recently she co-curated with our member of Department, Dr Claudia Hucke, the online exhibition About Face: Revisiting Jamaica’s First Exhibition in Europe. At the National Gallery of Jamaica she was also directing a major project that would critically engage the visual culture of Rastafari, entitled Rasta! Dr Archer-Straw early on embraced the digital world, excitedly using technology in the classroom and creating and utilising internet resources for Caribbean art. Her blog PetrineArcher.com is especially noteworthy for its entries on Jamaican artists. Dr Archer-Straw has taught at Cornell University in the United States and worked in the Bahamas, helping to create a roadmap for the structure of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas.

Dr Archer-Straw was a gracious mentor and close friend to us all in the Department. She was a constant source of encouragement and guidance for our work. As a scholar she emphasised the importance of being focused, disciplined, and principled, but noted we should never lose the joy in our work. There was a formality to her demeanour emphasised by her English-Jamaican accent and her graceful poise from years of yoga. But she also knew how to laugh giddily with a girlish charm. Dr Archer-Straw was a model for us, never shying away from starting anew. She took up yoga training in her early forties and became a popular instructor; recently, she also became an art appraiser. Perhaps, because she suffered from sickle cell she emphasised a balanced life and found ways, whether through yoga, gardening or dancing to control her illness rather than having it control her.

 We will miss her dearly.

Resonance…by Jasmine Girvan




Resonance by Jasmine Girvan…, a set on Flickr.

Every year close to Christmas jeweler Jasmine Girvan has a show in Jamaica…This year the show was strong on sculpture as you can see from the photos. These photos were taken at the HiQo Gallery last night during the opening or vernissage of Resonance…one of the highlights of the show was an obvious commentary on some of the political pussyfooting at the 2011 Commission of Enquiry into the Government’s handling of the extradition request for former West Kingston strongman Christopher ‘Dudus’ Coke.

Exhibition runs til 13th December, Tues- Sat. 10 am – 3pm. Do go and check it out.

Astro, the Morning Star, shines his light on us in Kingston…

A note on Astro Saulter’s exhibition at Studio 174




Astro, the Morning Star…, a set on Flickr.

Thoroughly enjoyed the opening of Astro’s show at Studio 174 last night…Born with cerebral palsy into the talented Saulter family (brother Storm Saulter is the acclaimed director of the film Better Mus Come and responsible for injecting new life into the filmmaking circuits in Jamaica and the Caribbean), Astro is a poster boy for the cause of creative development and nurturing for everyone no matter the physical challenges they’re saddled with. The artworks he’s produced using a computer and his head to direct digital tools are at once graphically sophisticated and chromatically intense, products of a refreshingly unjaded, ingenuous eye. Spotted at the opening in addition to many other notables was evening star Chris Blackwell; Blackwell Rum lubricated the occasion and the inimitable Nomadzz graced it with their rhymes, chants, curses and drums…

Check out the exhibition which will be up till January 19, Wednesday to Saturday 10:30am-4pm. Studio 174 is at the intersection of Harbour Street and West Street in downtown Kingston, an atmospheric space worth visiting in its own right. For more details and information on Astro’s ‘process’–how he actually makes his art–visit Kate Chappell’s blog here.

How at least one Jamaican man sees Mugabe…

An unflattering depiction of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe by Jamaican painter Michael ‘Flyn’ Elliott

The Trillionaire by Michael ‘Flyn’ Elliott (click to enlarge)

Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe has annoyed Jamaicans by airing his views on Jamaican culture and Jamaican men in a rather cavalier manner. He was speaking at a research exposition in Harare according to the UK Telegraph which quoted from his 3-hour speech:

“In Jamaica, they have freedom to smoke cannabis, the men are always high and universities are full of women”…

“The men want to sing and do not go to colleges, some of them twist their hair. Let us not go there.”

In his 2010 painting The Trillionaire Jamaican painter Flyn depicted Mugabe in even more unflattering terms; as a delusional despot stubbornly clinging to his throne in the midst of rotting debris, a heap of skulls and a ruined shell of a building symbolizing the state of the state he has presided over for far too long.

I had to wonder if Mugabe’s outburst wasn’t a case of delayed post-Olympic penis envy…I mean Bolt, Blake, Weir, Hansle Parchment and the rest of the Olympic men’s team represent Jamaican masculinity at its world-beating best. Had they escaped Muggy’s notice? Is his memory failing?